I’ve had a copy of this album for some months but was sworn to silence until its release was set. I did as I was asked although it was strain – at the first time of listening I thought it was stunning piece of work – but I put it to one side and didn’t play it again.
Returning to Awena I hear the same songs but subtly differently. The magic of hearing it unfold for the first time is a one-off; the second time it’s possible to delve deeper into the stories. And these songs are real stories, inspired by literature and fable. Gerry Diver’s production and input into the arrangements add a depth and gravity to the songs but even the simpler accompaniments like ‘Red Coat’ have a weight. I say simpler but ‘Red Coat’ breaks out from its slow twin squeeze-box backing into a sprightly tune before closing in orchestral splendour. It tells the story of a soldier in three movements – recruitment, home on leave, as a hero we presume, and finally returning to war for the last time.
‘Jackie’s Stone’ tells of two brothers, both navvies, who hit the town one Saturday night with tragic consequences. Richard Thompson could have written this song and been proud of it. ‘Widow Thomas’ is an odd song that’s actually about the poet and composer Ivor Gurney and I’m still figuring it out. The darkness continues with ‘Smiling Loner’ and ‘Man Of Bones’, Wes’ take on the ‘Death And The Lady Tradition’ with more sweeping strings. The closer, ‘Riverbed’, sees a deserted husband contemplating suicide, and for all that, it’s one the album’s top tracks with its sneaky quote of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. It begins with unaccompanied voice and ends with out and out rock. It’s only fault is that it is too short.
Musically, there is hell of a lot going on with no two songs backed in the same way. ‘Corinne’, for example, begins with jangly strings before a solo fiddle, Diver I presume, comes in to swell the sound and make room for more. ‘Maurice’ opens with acoustic guitar and minimal piano before the strings underpin the sense of gloom. Later, Wes gives us a cover of ‘Love Me Tender’ which begins on one channel as if recorded on Neil Young’s Voice-O-Graph before expanding into a little old-fashioned schmaltz that becomes buried in strange sounds.
This is a very fine album, packed with excellent songs and brilliant musical ideas. I hope it sells millions.
‘Jackie’s Stone’ live: